Preparation for the Unexpected

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This past weekend I taught at a USATF Level 1 school. Between teaching at Level 1s, 2s, and 3s this was my 40th school. For the past year, I’ve been averaging about 2 schools a month. I do them so frequently now that I practically know the material by heart and don’t need the powerpoints. I say this to point out that they are very much routine in a way that might be similar to an athlete who prepares to compete and then competes 2-3 times a month.

But this weekend I arrived to teach my first session at the Level 1 school and something felt ‘off.’ My presentation started late; the room was WAAAY undersized and filled to almost double capacity; the AC wasn’t working and it was hot (~85+ degrees); and the powerpoints could only be seen clearly with the lights off, which meant I gave my entire presentation in the complete dark. I’m not sure wish of the above threw me off or if it was the combination of all of them but my first presentation (on Exercise Physiology) wasn’t one of my bestt. I went over my allotted time, I was having to think for words rather than just having them flow, and my teaching logic and explanations weren’t as good as usual. I don’t know if anyone in the class noticed but I did and it made me think about the ramifications of dealing with unexpected situations and how it can take someone off their game even if they’re highly practiced.

These presentations are normally very routine for me because I do them all the time. But I think I was taken out of my usual flow by a couple variables that I hadn’t expected or experienced before. Ironically, my presentation followed a great sport psychology lecture where fellow ELITETRACK member and good friend, Dave Kerin spoke of how Stephanie Brown-Trafton, a wonderful woman who I’ve worked with in the past, prepared for throwing at Beijing Stadium prior to winning an unexpected gold medal there in 2008. Without giving away the entire story, Stephanie blew up a picture of the inside of Beijing’s birds nest stadium to mural size and placed it on her wall a year out from the games. She became intimately familiar with the unfamiliar setting without ever having been to the stadium. She pictured herself being there. She credits this as one of the reasons she was able to go from being someone who barely qualified for the U.S. Olympic team to the Olympic champion only 2 months later.

With several athletes in my training group potentially making breakthroughs to international competitions this year or next it reinforced my thinking that I need to start placing more emphasis on preparing them for big stage competitions where dealing with the unexpected is routine. Practicing in a variety of bad weather conditions, at different times of day, in different venues, running and jumping against headwinds, throwing with unfamiliar implements, introducing more contextual interference, and creating mock crises and high pressure practice scenarios will be things I use more frequently. Do you address mental preparedness for the unexpected in practice? If so, share what you do in the forum. If not, what are you waiting for?

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